Monday, 5 September 2011

What can England's cricket success teach managers?

The news that England (above) were officially the best Test cricket side in the world certainly warmed my heart by a few degrees. The permafrost created by shouting into the wind about how to conduct public policy based on actual evidence and history cracked only a little, it's true, but certainly it felt like the sun had come out for at least a bit.

Anyone who remembers just what a joke England really were in the late 1990s, as they fell to the bottom of the Test league table, and anyone who likes cricket, cannot have been anything but impressed by the team's remarkable progress.

But can we say anything more about success, organisation, motivation and above all leadership based on England's triumphant whitewash of the previous best-in-the-world team, India?

I think we can, and here's some (hopefully thought-provoking) general reasons why England have carried all before them:

1. They are well-prepared. Lord MacLaurin set up a National Academy and established central contracts for players way back during his rein as chair of the ECB in 1997-2002. Replacing a bunch of ill-connected plans thrown together on the day, 'Team England' became a real entity at this point. These days, the amount of money earned from Sky TV deals, and the backroom staff bought with it, is a key part of England's success. Physios, coaches and psychologists prepare and protect the team as never before. Analyst Nathan Leamon, who goes by the unlikely nickname of 'Numbers', leads the way in statistical analysis of cricket performance.

2. They have a plan and a target. Following the debacle of England's 2007-2008 Ashes tour of Australia, where mind-numbing defeat at Adelaide and off-the-park shenanigans cost them dear, the powers the be commissioned a thorough investigation. They commissioned an outsider, Ken Schofield from the world of golf, to recommend how to go about root-and-branch reform. What he came up with was a far-reaching set of recommendations that basically amounted to a series of planning structures (performance squads, management continuity and the like) that would leave nothing to chance in constantly taking England's game to 'the next level'. After a particularly galling and sloppy defeat by the West Indians in 2009, a seemingly-impossible target was set: England had to aim at being top of the world, rather than remaining happy with mid-table mediocrity. Andy Flower, the team's coach, has persued that goal with a fixed-eye stare that legends are made of. The secret, as economists put it, is to 'plan the target but not the path'. Have a goal - don't try to control all the variables and details on the way. England have succeeded marvellously at just that sort of game.

3. They find the best in unlikely places. Rather like Chris Smalling, Manchester United and England's makeshift right-back, many of England's success stories weren't established figures when England fixed on them as future stars. Jimmy Anderson rocketed from league cricket to the big time in just a few months. Chris Tremlett, increasingly a terrifying opponent for any batsman due to his pace and height, endured years in the wilderness. Provenance? Hierarchy? First-in-the-queue buggins' turn? England will have none of it. Which brings us on to the next point.

4. They create unity out of diversity. England's starting eleven usually contains a lot of contrasts. Not only were some of the star performers born and raised in South Africa (not so unusual, but certainly a contrast to the exeriences of home-grown players). But it's certainly a contrast to the life experiences and the playing styles of the home-grown players. Socially, too, the outfit is a bit more complex than captain Andrew Strauss' Radley-and-Durham CV would suggest. Graeme Swann went to the state comprehensive Sponne School in Towcester Anderson went to a Roman Catholic state school in Burnley. Swann, in particular, is something of an unconventional joker who's nothing like his more conservative and straight-laced captain. But something about this cake-like mix of opposites has made them rise. Perhaps it's exactly because they're so different?

5. They are ambitious. Some players have endured lean times. Everyone has this from time to time. No-one can be at the top of their game all the time. But what do players do when they're having a ban run? Sulk? Kick the ground? Nope. Stuart Broad was completely out of form against the Sri Lankans earlier this summer, and instead of slinking away, he kept asking for the ball, and he kept working away - harder than ever. He was rewarded with a golden run of form with both bat and ball. Even now, having crushed Australia and India in the longer form of the game, England's players refuse to rest on their laurels. After years of under-achieving in the shorter forms (especially the 50-over format in which the World Cup is played) they are now setting their sights on dominating in that arena too. Want to bet against them? Me neither.

6. They are ruthless. Not content with breaking Rohit Sharma's finger in the first One-Day International, England's 50-over captain, Stuart Broad, said that the barrage would go on. And despite bulldozing the much-vaunted Indian team into the dust for weeks, England's bowlers engaged in a bit of kidology when they threatened to unleash a new 'mystery' delivery. Previous English teams would have thought all this in a bit of bad taste, and perhaps harboured a secret desire to see the Indians 'win one or two'. Not this lot.

7. They fight in depth. There's not one or two stars: there are eleven team members. England were in dire straits on a couple of occasions during their clash with the Indians. At Nottingham their batting threatened to fall apart, and then the Indians looked likely to bat them out of the game. What happened? Their lower order batsmen (especially Stuart Broad) dug them out of their first hole, and then a previously out-of-form Broad struck again with a hat-trick of wickets on the second day. The problem with 'marquee players' is that, should they fall down, the rest of the group is exposed to the wind and the rain (apologies for the slightly over-extended metaphor here). This team has built a great big solid series of tents to hide in during inclement periods when luck or talent deserts most of them. This is yet another of the reasons that - unlike India - they never turn up looking like a load of individuals, but rather an actual group.

Aiming to build something out of nothing? A new organisation? A new leadership? Trying to claw your way up a league table? I think you could learn a lot from Andrews Strauss and Flower.